An Apology

In a long ago life and in two distant places, I taught college classes in composition. I tried to be helpful, but now that I’ve finally reached what passes for a belated adulthood, I want to apologize to my students. By now they too have reached full adulthood and perhaps forgotten that they ever had to take intro courses in composition. But here’s the problem. In teaching composition, I avoided or lost sight of what it means to write.

If I were to walk into a classroom now, I’d do a better job and departmental goals be damned. In the very first class I would ask each person to give a one word answer: What matters to you? I might make a list of the answers on the board. Then I would say, write for ten minutes about your answer. And I’d urge them to free write, non-stop, keep the pen moving. I’d hope they had pen and paper, but if they showed up with tablets, well, do the best you can.

And after the timer went off, I’d ask that they each underline what they like in what they have just written. Why that choice? Okay, now do it again, beginning with your favorite phrase, sentence, image.

“No five paragraph essay required. Take this work home with you and write what means something to you.” If someone asked about grades and things like punctuation and spelling and word count, I say that we’ll get around to those, maybe. But I’d also tell them that those rules are actually tools and when you have something to say, we’ll see if and where the tools help make your thoughts clear.

After decades of writing, I know how awful it must have felt to have to squeeze my words into a preordained form that has nothing to do with what I want my reader to see. I’m sorry, all you first year students. I didn’t mean to squish you into a corner and not let you out till after the end of the semester.

Concentrated Looking

Here’s an exercise I came up with and it worked well in a writing group this week. The purpose is to sharpen your descriptions. Use it as a journal exercise or to deepen the meaning of a significant object in a poem or piece of prose.

Concentrated Looking

Select an object to enrich your setting and explore it in the following ways:

  • Was it found or sought out?
  • Did it grow or was it made?
  • What is it called and who named it?
  • Describe its shape, size, color(s) and use.
  • How much does it weigh?
  • What is its surface texture?
  • What does it contain? What contains it?
  • Who owns/uses it?
  • How do you feel about it?
  • How old is it? How long will it last?

The more mundane the object, the more it will challenge you. Your description may range from minimalist to opulent. For examples of these two concepts, read William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and Francis Ponge’s prose poem on soap. Both are readily available on line. Have fun with it. Come back to it often.